St. Louis Mid-Century Modern Events

If you love Mid-Century Modern architecture in general, and St. Louis’ stash of MCM specifically, then set your sites on this coming week. You have 2 opportunities to be with others like you.

# 1.

Modern StL makes it social debut on Thursday, November 18th, from 5 – 8 PM at Atomic Cowboy. Our group has put together 25 atomic-minded gift bags which will go the first 25 people who join up. There will be a raffle for two Geneva Jelly Watches. Meet the people who want you to be a part of celebrating St. Louis MCM (that would be the Board Members), and mix and mingle with other folks who absolutely have the best taste in design and architecture because they came out to support Modern StL.


I am very honored to be invited by the Landmarks Association to be the closing act of their  Mid-Century Modern Master Series. On Sunday, November 21st at 3 PM at Landmarks, I present St. Loves MCM: Embracing Recent Past Preservation.  This venerable organization describes it best on their website:

From Mad Men to Design Within Reach, it seems as if America is embracing mid-century modern (MCM) with a passion.  With the Arch as out global calling card, it’s time for St. louis to embrace and protect its MCM heritage.  Join Toby Weiss as she showcases some of St. Louis’ best MCM buildings and looks at ways to ensure their preservation.

The lecture will begin at 3:00 PM in the classroom at Architecture St. Louis at 911 Washington Avenue, Suite 170. Seating is limited to 50 people.  We strongly encourage reservations as we cannot guarantee seating without one.  To reserve a seat, please call 314.421.6474 or email:

It is always a great pleasure to hear from and meet B.E.L.T. readers because we all have so much in common. Now in November, we have two chances to “Gabba gabba, we accept you, one of us!” I hope you can make it to one or (preferably!) both events.

Introducing Modern StL

The Arch is the global icon of modernism, and it is the front door of St. Louis.  We have a glorious collection of mid-century modern buildings and neighborhoods, and we’re overdue in celebrating and protecting these assets.

This is why we have formed a new non-profit group – Modern StL. We strive for the identification, education, preservation and celebration of St. Louis Modernism. We have plans for many different types of events (how would you like a walking tour of Ridgewood with some words by its architect Ralph Fournier?) and seminars, and swag, and on-line forums and… the possibilities are endless.

The group met for the first time in June, and we’ve only recently incorporated with the state of Missouri. So we have a lot of work ahead of us to make everything official – including levels of membership and our first major event – but in the mean time, we invite you to explore our website in progress:

To stay in the loop, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And we look forward to connecting with all St. Louisans who love St. Louis’ fabulous mid-century modern treasures.

Modern StL Founders (l-r): top row - Nathan Wilbur, Lynn Josse, Michael Allen, Neil Chace, Darren Snow, Jeff King & Dan Semar. Bottom row - Amy Burger, Toby Weiss & Michelle Kodner

Mid-Century Fetish: Torch Song

It is great fortune to have another Joan Crawford film to dissect for its art direction (the previous one being The Best Of Everything), though this film is notorious for soooo many other things that not many notice the details of the scenery being chewed up. In fact, I didn’t notice it the first time I saw this 1953 MGM musical in the 1990s. But much thanks goes to Steve Hayes – the esteemed Tired Old Queen at the Movies – who inspired me to watch this film again.

Here’s Mr. Hayes vivid 3-minute overview of this must-see flick.

The opening credits clue you into the visual delights that will unfold, because the art directors are the justly-legendary Cedric Gibbons and the somewhat forgotten Preston Ames. While Gibbons put a never-to-be-overlooked art deco stamp on MGM movies from the 1930s and 40s, he was contractually given art director credits on all MGM movies until his retirement in 1956. So while he had to approve the look of each film, Torch Song definitely looks like the hand of Ames, who is best known for his collaborations with director Vincenti Minnelli on films such as An American in Paris, GigGi and (to my mind) Bells Are Ringing.

For this overblown Crawford vehicle, it’s as if Ames purposely tried to compensate for the unflagging overwrought plots and performances by grounding the action in sets that looked like catalogs for the best in early 1950s residential modern design. From furniture to lamps to accessories, he found endless ways to upstage Miss Crawford (gasp!) in the hearts of mid-century modern design aficionados.

Miss Crawford’s character Jenny Stewart is a deliciously repugnant battle axe of a Broadway star who obviously makes enough money to afford digs like this. While she prowls and growls at home, the camera takes every opportunity to share the details of her living quarters (where most of the movie takes place), and it is so sumptuous that I often had to rewind to pick up key dialogue that I’d missed.

We do get to see a few other character’s places, like the modest home of Jenny Stewart’s mother, or the traditional-tinged-with modern apartment (above) of Tye Graham (played by Elizabeth Taylors’ then-husband Michael Wilding), the blind pianist who riles up Miss Crawford before (spoiler alert) taming the shrew.

To my mind, the stars of the movie are – in this order – Miss Crawford, Jenny Stewart’s Living Room and Jenny Stewart’s Bedroom. And The Bedroom steals the movie outright for 14 minutes. During this long, unbroken scene with no dialogue, we watch Jenny Stewart deal with her vexation and frustration over Tye while cloistered away in The Bedroom.  She relentlessly paces the floor of muted gray carpet, plows into bed to play with the overhead metal lamp (above), pulling it down, sending it back up and swinging it from side to side.

She goes through a series of cigarettes that are dramatically lit and violently stamped out in glamorous ashtrays atop gorgeous pieces of built-in furniture.

And in one of the more spellbinding mimes during this 14-minutes, she ravages this clock, spinning its hands like flicking the spinner in a game of drunken Twister. The clock even gets a 5-second close-up, which robbed valuable time from Miss Crawford. Actually this bit with the clock was so odd and so absorbing that I didn’t understand why (other than it being fabulous) the clock figured so prominently and had to rewind to figure it out.  Which is the case with this entire scene; it felt like Crawford was only a game show model guiding you to the finer points of this bedroom’s high design.

She even dutifully goes to the window and throws back the curtains so you can see the chairs and planter on the balcony! After watching the entire scene again, I realized we were supposed to be concentrating on Crawford’s anguish, and if she had any clue that Ames was stealing her thunder with the complicit approval of director Charles Walters, she’d have fired them both, immediately!

The Living Room comes back for another great scene involving a party Jenny throws to lure blind Tye into her private world. She is the only woman in a sea of white men (and one lone black piano player) who must have been instructed to wear navy blue suits so they would coordinate with the brown tiger wood paneling and the white George Nelson pendant lamps.

Jenny’s fury at (spoiler alert) being stood up by Tye causes her to kick everyone out as she runs back to The Bedroom, and for this scene featuring the silk drapes, Ames also sneaks in a new hanging lamp (upper left) whose orange bulbs echo the burning rage of Jenny.

We now pause from adoring Jenny’s decor to pay homage to the most bizarre scene ever filmed – the musical production for “Two-Faced Woman.”

If you’ve never done psychedelic drugs, this a safe way to experience a scary trip. For those who have done psychedelics, it’s an unwelcome acid flashback.

Back to sobriety, more rooms in Jenny’s apartment are revealed, like her dressing room, all done up in colors a Barbie doll would choose if trying for a sophisticated look.

And the doorbell ringing gives Ames another opportunity to introduce some more new features, like this built-in shelf with abstract sculpture…

…and the Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, which upstages Wilding, who is adhering to the household rule of Men In Navy Suits. This scene also gives new angles on the rest of The Living Room that are so breathtaking that I overlooked the major plot point that Tye only came over to tell Jenny to piss off, which of course….

…sends her running to his place, where she sneaks up on him, accosts him and makes him fall to floor in tears. This, naturally signals a great love and compassion…

…that allows them to neck awkwardly through the closing credit.

I only poke fun at the great Miss Crawford because she can no longer choke a wench! But seriously, she always had fabulously modern tastes for her own homes. Take a look at her New York City apartment from 1957-67. Which highlights the very real possibility that she loved everything about these Preston Ames sets, so didn’t mind how prominently they were featured. Though it takes a strong commitment (and fetish) to mid-century modern design to think they upstaged her.

Other movie sets freeze-framed on B.E.L.T.

Julius Shulman Film Releasing on DVD

Guess what I just bought?
Yep, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman releases on DVD May 25th. It has extra footage and deleted scenes, just as Eric Bricker promised when it was first shown here in November of 2008.

You can pre-order the DVD from now until May 25th, and it’s $25 flat, shipping and handling included. You’ll receive it 2-3 days after the 25th. Here’s where I went to order it, just now!

Yeah, I’m geeking out. But I’ve waited a long time to own this and freeze-frame till the remote fries out.

B.E.L.T. Julius Shulman Compendium

See the Julius Shulman film January 30th


Post-Script, After The Event
Thank you to everyone who left their warm homes to spend time in Julius Shulman’s world.  It was a an intelligent and enthusiastic crowd, and it was a true pleasure to personally meet so many of you.  And Marlene Bricker is a joy!  Here’s a few photos from the night.

Most interesting bit of news from the night is that Shulman’s home is for sale!  Within this link are some informative comments about the home, the realtor and its future prospects in a tear-down market.  Even better, this link has extensive photos of the home cleaned up for selling.  Looking at the shots of his studio made me tear up a bit – can you imagine living there?

Let’s hope the family makes sure the buyer is properly respectful. This is definitely a home worth preserving.

The Event

Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, a documentary by native St. Louisan Eric Bricker, makes a return engagement to the Moore Auditorium on the Webster University campus, January 29-31st, 2010.  Here’s details about the film series and admission.

I’m asking you to come see this glorious documentary on Saturday, January 30th at 7:30 pm because I will be part of a Q & A panel after the film, and would love the support of sympathetic B.E.L.T. readers!

Yes, Marlene Bricker – mother of the director – asked me to be on the panel, which is so cool and sweet of her.  But knowing that my adoration of Shulman could render me a blubbering gush of “wow,” I suggested that the best architectural photographer in St. Louis should also be on the panel, and luckily, Ken Konchel said yes!

So please do come out to see us this Saturday.  Admission is $6, the film is 83 minutes long, and the 3 of us will take questions directly after.

Here’s my farewell tribute to Shulman, who passed away only last year.

And here’s my 2008 review of the film we’re lucky enough to see again!

Can Northwest Plaza Be Saved?


The news that Macy’s is closing its Northwest Plaza store marks the sound of the footsteps of a dead mall walking.  The fate of both the former Famous-Barr department store and Northwest Plaza makes me ultra sad, and even before this news I was always nostalgic for the Northwest Plaza of old.  It once had energy and personality, then someone decided to put a lid on it.  It’s been a slow suffocation ever since.


My deep fondness for the Famous-Barr at Northwest Plaza stems from one exact moment in time, and it radiates out from there forever more.

November 1978, Olivia Newton-John releases the album Totally Hot.  It was a calculated move to capitalize on her “bad Sandy” from Grease.  The songs were the most rock she’d ever be, and it was matched with a look which was a modern-day continuation of the 1950s black leather look that had ended the movie my friend and I had seen 7 times in the movie theaters that summer.  Some of the songs on this record were more guitar driven, the vocals randy and tough, and to a long-time Livvy fan (Nerd Alert: I belonged to her fan club years before Grease) it was revolutionary.

Just as important as the music (which still sounds just as great today, thanks to the brilliance of producer John Farrar) was the album cover art work.  I had just turned 13, and had been given the go-ahead to wear make-up to school, and this is exactly how I wanted to look!


A Friday night in December 1978, I was dropped off at Northwest Plaza, and I trudged through the snow to get to the very spot shown above: the Estee Lauder counter at this Famous-Barr.  Where else would a newborn teenage girl go to get that smokey-eyed Livvy look?  I stared down through the glass case at all the eye liner pencils, and my heart pounded with excitement at this whole new world of possibility before me.  Then a sales lady asked how she could help, and my head started pounding with fear because I had no clue what to say, what to do.  I was only used to using the products in my Mother’s make-up drawer, not buying my own!

The sales lady was very kind, and after a swift transaction, I walked away with a fat Estee Lauder eye liner pencil of a deep blue-gray.  It was my first make-up purchase, my first adult thing, and I still remember the smell of the winter air as I walked out of the store, and turning to look back inside at the warm glow of a cosmetics department that had accepted me as one of their own.  Even then, I knew it was a milestone girl-to-woman moment.

As most teenage girls tend to do at the start, I too often left the house looking like a hussy raccoon.  I abused that pencil something fierce, and still never came close to looking like Lovely Livvy.  I do believe that the stub of that inaugural eye pencil still exists in one of my junk piles, holding onto it because that time resonated so deeply.  And so does the place that it happened at.


Which is why I went there today, to take one last look around, take some photos, and see if the Ghosts of Shopping Past still float under that majestic, astro ceiling.  Today was also a gathering of the Facebook groups I Hung Out at the Northwest Plaza Fountain as a Teenager and Let’s Revitalize Northwest Plaza Now! As a person still grieving from the death of Northland Shopping Center, I had to join both groups and then get a look at the people who were foolhardy enough to try and save a dying mall.

I was there around 1:30, so didn’t get to see what was eventually about 300 people, as reported by NOCO StL.  But Northwest Plaza is so scary dead that seeing the healthy handfuls of people already gathered at the spot where the fountain once lay was heart-warming.

Putting a roof over this outdoor plaza was a bad idea from the start; back in the day, I don’t recall a single soul agreeing that this was just what the place needed.  But this is what the then-owners felt was necessary to keep up with the Retail Joneses, that shoppers want a hermetically sealed environment more than they want personality and ease of access that comes from open-air malls.  With millions of dollars of renovation, they erased the low-slung, mid-century midwest ease that changed with the seasons for a clinical, soulless, Any Town U.S.A. warehouse.

I have a sharp, instinctual sense of direction, but once they put the roof over Northwest Plaza, I got lost (as in “will this be an anxiety attack?” lost) every time.  I’d try to use the anchor stores as place reminders of the old layout, but it was all so tall and bland and disconcerting, that I’d get discombobulated.  The jagged contrast between what it used to be and what it had become was so depressing that I haven’t stepped foot in the place for well over 10 years.  It had nothing to do with crime or location or the types of stores within.  It was about being creeped out about walking over the burial grounds of a once-beloved place.  Oh, how I long to see even the blurriest photo of those lighted deers that graced the Plaza at Christmas time… Northwest Plaza exists only in memories. This mall that has its name is just a tombstone.


I am so ecstatic to see a passionate group of people wanting to save this place that I can taste it, but there’s also a bitter aftertaste.  There is very little original fiber left to Northwest Plaza, so only a sense of the place we once loved can be revitalized.  Even if future plans do include removing the roof, it still won’t be the Northwest Plaza being honored today, it will just be a new “lifestyle center” hoping to coast off nostalgic momentum.

Today also poked at the mental scab I have about the demolition of Northland Shopping Center, another beloved North St. Louis County place that could instantly transport you back to the golden days of yesteryear because it was still in its original state.  And because of the era in which it was built, Northland was more architecturally significant than Northwest Plaza.  But back in 2002-2003, when news of Northland’s demise was first reported, there was not yet Facebook groups to make people aware of what was happening and spur them into action. And trust that people feel just as passioantely about Northland as they do Northwest; even all these many years on, I still regularly get e-mails from people sharing their Northland memories after they’ve found my cyber memorial.  The St. Louisan sense of place is very strong, and we should be proud of that.

But back in the pre-social network year of 2003, it was just me and a couple of other mourners who documented Northland’s last days.  Even then, I knew trying to save it was a losing game;  acceptance and love of mid-century modern architecture was barely stirring, and the idea of trying to save retail is a brand new concept brought about by the deaths of enclosed malls.


What was particularly galling was that as the last walls of Northland were being toppled, retail trends were swinging to (or actually, back to) open air plazas.  Wow, and they just killed a great opportunity for a retro open air plaza, which could have been the mack daddy of St. Louis lifestyle shopping destinations.  It was also right around this time that the first rumors of removing the roof swirled around Northwest Plaza.  This double dose of irony was more than I could withstand and I learned to just let go of any efforts or thoughts of preserving retail because it’s just about following the money which is about following the trends, and obviously, no one cares about retail buildings anyway.

Until now.
These hundreds of people who signed up cyberally and then, today, showed up in person are stirring hope in my heart.  Are we ready to embrace sense of place, and ready to expect people-friendly and attractive built environments?  Are we realizing how wasteful it is to keep destroying the places of our past for a future with a short shelf life?  Regardless of what becomes of Northwest Plaza, I’m just relieved to hear others joining this conversation, and am so proud of St. Louis for taking this stand.  You guys rock!

Northland Shopping Center
Tear Down Jamestown Mall


Mid-Century Fetish: Ocean’s 11


Previously, we covered why Frank Sinatra is the Godfather of Mid-Century Modern, and now we check in on him in 1960 and see that he continued to personify the MCM lifestyle some 13 years after moving into Twin Palms.

Ocean’s 11 released in August 1960, but began 2 weeks of filming on January 11, 1960.  According to the exhaustively detailed commentary by Frank Sinatra, Jr. on the DVD re-issue, we learn that the vast majority of the movie was filmed on location in Vegas and inside the 5 casinos that were “being robbed.”   This makes Ocean’s 11 a valuable snapshot of what Las Vegas once looked like, a celluloid form of historical preservation for a town that has no use for such things.


Most of the movie’s action takes place in or around Las Vegas casinos, so there are only a small handful of Hollywood stage sets, like the one above.  For the sake of brevity, I left out screen grabs that were solely dedicated to the lighting that was chosen for residential sets.  Actually, for mid-century modern lighting and chair enthusiasts, this movie is highly recommended.


Coral orange and salmon pink are the popular accent color of the movie.  Another popular accessory in the movie is cigarettes; both the Rat Pack and Mad Men had a 3-pack a day habit, I swear!

Her Royal Highness, Miss Angie Dickinson (shown seated, above) also contributes to the DVD commentary, and when it comes to her first scene with Dean Martin, and they both get ready to light up, Angie says, “I can’t believe they’re going to pull out cigarettes!  To see myself smoking in movies is shocking.  It seems so wrong, but as everyone knows, in the 40s, 50s, 60, everybody smoked.  Back then, nobody hesitated – drinking and smoking and living it up.”


Sinatra’s character Danny Ocean masterminds a plot to rip off 5 casinos at one time on New Year’s Eve, and brings together his 10 best men to pull it off.  They gather at this stunning mid-century home.


Like most of the movie, it is an actual location rather than a set, in this case, it’s a home in Beverly Hills that was then owned by Hollywood theatrical agent Kurt Frings.  According to Sinatra, Jr., Frings’ was surprised they wanted to use it for the film, but was more than happy to let them do so.  This tidbit proves a conscious decision on someone’s part – maybe Sinatra? – as to what style of house these thoroughly modern rapscallions should gather in.


The downstairs rumpus room in the Frings’ house covers just about every decorating trend of the late 1950s, including Tiki, Asian and African.  There’s quite a bit of furniture (I lost track trying to count all the different types of chairs) and knick-knacks in this large room, yet it doesn’t look busy or fussy.  This is one of the hallmarks of mid-century modern residential design:  how to have a lot of stuff without looking like you do!


From the film we see the entrance to the original Flamingo Hotel, which was built in 1946 by gangster Bugsy Siegel.  By 1967, new owners began remodeling, renovating and removing, and by 1994 all pieces of the original hotel were demolished.  Only the name survives from the old days, but Ocean’s 11 preserves some important aspects of the place…


…like the multiple showrooms in each of the hotels. Sinatra, Jr. was most impassioned when discussing how the casinos used to operate, “when they were owned by individuals, not corporations.”  He explained that these intimate music lounges existed to “feed live music into the casino,” and give gamblers a place to eat and revive themselves for some more gambling.


Each music lounge (like the Flamingo Room, above) took great care to book quality music and comedy acts, regarding them as being as big a draw as the gambling.  Music or gambling, either way, they’d get your money.

The reason the production got the actual hotels as sets in the movie was because the Rat Pack was actually performing in the Copa Room at the Sands for the 1959-60 holiday season.  Once their shows were done for the night, filming began at 2:15 a.m. and they shot until it became too light.   The production made a deal with the participating 5 casinos to leave up their regular Christmas decorations for a couple of weeks longer so it could play into the New Year’s Eve plot line.


And here is the legendary Sands Hotel.  It opened in 1952, was the zenith of Vegas entertainment by the time of Ocean’s 11, and closed in 1996, followed by an infamous implosion a few months later.  Unlike some of the other lost hotels, the Sands named died with it.


Here’s a diner from the original Sands casino, and a distinction must be made about the building types.  As Sinatra, Jr. points out in the DVD commentary, the casino, showrooms and lounges were in a separate building from the hotel, and the hotels were no higher than 3-stories tall and situated behind the main building.


Right next door to the Sands was the Desert Inn (and both places would be owned by Howard Huges by the mid-60s), which operated from 1950 to 2000. And like the Sands, once it was demolished, the name went with it.


By the mid-1960s, the city of Las Vegas made a concerted effort to draw in more people by building a convention center, and more people required more rooms.  This is the time period when high-rise hotels were erected, and so required massive renovations to the existing casino hotels.


This is the gambling room of the Desert Inn as it was in January 1960. While not posh, it’s certainly more civilized than the lights-flashing-sirens-honking casinos we have now.


The Riviera (shown above), which opened in 1955, foreshadowed the super hotel concept by being the first high-rise hotel erected on The Strip, and it remains to this day in the same location with the same name.  But the building shown here is long gone.

The new corporate owners that took over in the late 1960s figured – according to Sinatra, Jr. – “that people should only have to walk as far as the elevator to spend their money,” which is when the concept of separate buildings was jettisoned in favor of a a gargantuan hotel that could allow you to never set foot outside of it.


The Sahara Hotel is the only other of the Ocean’s 11 5 that remain in the same place with the same name, but by 1963 they had begun serious renovations to the 1952 structure.  By the late 1970s, Vegas switched over to the “mega-resort” concept, which was a way to make Vegas family-friendly which meant more money from different types of people flowing in.  From the DVD commentary, both Sinatra, Jr. and Miss Dickinson are emphatic that luring kids to Vegas was the death knell for a once-great city, with Dickinson lamenting the disappearance of the last safe place for adults to be adults.


Here’s footage from the film of Dean Martin performing in the Congo Lounge of the Sahara.  Sinatra, Jr. was also very detailed about the death of quality entertainment in Vegas, explaining that the number of private lounges were reduced by new corporate owners who felt they were wasting their money with duplications of musicians throughout a casino.  The disappearance of the small music lounges that were free-of-charge to gamblers did not seem to affect the flow of people coming through the doors, so the rest of the lounges were torn out, replaced by grand concert halls with high-dollar tickets that could lure in even the non-gamblers.


After the robberies are completed, there are a few stage set scenes, with this office interior being one of them. I love the masculine drama of this room.


But for the most part, 1960 Las Vegas is the star of Ocean’s 11, with cameo appearances by the Rat Pack and friends.  And Vegas has always been about flash and money, so has constantly been changing to keep up with the cash, so any type of serious preservation of the Vega Strip was laughed off the street decades ago.  Though there is The Neon Museum, the graveyard for so many of the wonderful neon sings that are the landscape of Vegas.  They even turned the LaConcha Motel (which I covered in 2005) into their visitor’s center!

But for the most part, photographs and memories are the historical preservation of Las Vegas, and the Rat Pack era is the one that seems to ignite the romantic imagination the most.  Luckily, Frank Sinatra – the Godfather of Mid-Century Modern – left behind the most potent and complete snapshot of a time and a town.


La Concha Motel, Las Vegas
Frank Sinatra: Mid-Century Modern Godfather


Connecting the Mad Men Dots


In a previous post, I made a set design connection between the movie The Best of Everything and the TV series Mad Men.  I even wrote:“I’d make a bet that (Mad Men creator) Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.”

From the photo above, turns out he’d not only seen the movie, but he and his writing staff used the book as research, and then inserted into an episode in Season 2.

Betty Draper walks into the bedroom, where Don is reading a paperback copy of Rona Jaffee’s The Best of Everything.
DON This is fascinating.
BETTY It’s better than the Hollywood  version.
DON It’s certainly dirtier.
BETTY Joan Crawford is not what she was.  You know, honestly, I found her eyebrows completely unnerving. Like a couple of caterpillars pasted there.  Her standing next to Suzy Parker as if they were the same species.
DON Well, some men like eyebrows, and all men like Joan Crawford.  Salvatore couldn’t stop talking about her.

Trash talking Miss Crawford?  Another reason why I dislike Betty, and this moves to #1 on the list.  At least Don told her what for!

Mid-Century Fetish: The Best Of Everything


Frank Sinatra: Mid-Century Modern Godfather


One of the most iconic images of residential mid-century modernism was made possible by Frank Sinatra.  Though he only lived in it for 10 years, the home is forever associated with him, and still inspires retro fantasies.

As cover art for a CD EP we did earlier this year, I chose the shot above because it combined two things I love: Julius Shulman and Ole’ Blue Eyes.  Now, both of my 70-something parents didn’t care much for the music within, but when they saw the CD cover they both immediately identified it as Frank’s place.  How’s that for architectural staying power?


The place is known as Twin Palms, and is now for rent as a Palm Springs party palace or the ultimate background for a photo shoot.  The official website has all the details, plus a great history of the home, which hipped me to something I did not know: Sinatra’s place was used as a location for the Joan Crawford film The Damned Don’t Cry.


I’ll take every opportunity to wallow in Miss Crawford melodrama, but for those of you too busy or too butch to go there, the scenes featuring Sinatra’s pad are screen-capped here.

The story of how Frank Sinatra got this home is fairly well-known: upon deciding he wanted a permanent residence in the then-sleepy desert town of Palm Springs, Frank walked into the office of E. Stewart Williams and simply said, “I want a house.”  Sinatra was thinking traditional columns and bricks, but for his first residential commission, Williams went with modern design.


Shortly before he died, Williams talked about presenting the drawings of the home in the film about Julius Shulman, Visual Acoustics.  Williams remembered that Sinatra was surprisingly open to such a radical departure from what he’d asked for, and the meeting was very brief because Sinatra had only one criteria to make his decision: Can you have it done by Christmas?


Even though it was the Summer of 1947, Williams said “yes” to the seemingly impossible: design and build a house to completion in less than 5 months.  Incredibly, they missed the deadline by only a week; Sinatra didn’t do Christmas but was able to throw a New Year’s Eve Party.

According to the Twin Palms website, Sinatra repaid a favor he owed by letting the production of The Damned Don’t Cry film at his home in 1950.  But they were only allowed to film outside, so any scenes that take place within the interior of the home are Hollywood creations that have nothing to do with what the interior of the actual house looked like.


We tend to see still pictures of the home shot from the same angles, so it’s a real treat to see it in this movie from different angles and functioning as someone’s home, rather than the icon it was rapidly becoming.

In the film, Twin Palms portrays the home of gangster Nick Prenta, who is in trouble with the New York Mob Boss.  Miss Crawford is the mistress of said Boss, and is sent by him to spy on Nick.  But because Nick is such a virile Italian stud (who is so secure in his manhood that he rocks op-art swim trunks), Crawford naturally falls in love with him (and his house!) and can’t bring herself to rat him out because that equals death.   (Spoiler Alert) Of course, Nick gets whacked, but the violence happens in Crawford’s apartment, so Twin Palm’s had no blood on its hands, real or reel.


We’re not even going to comment on the irony of Sinatra’s house “belonging” to a gangster while he himself dodged Mob rumors for most of his career.  Instead, let’s marvel at these rare glimpses of the home in its infancy, and appreciate the people who have restored the place within the past 12 years.

And the place did need extensive restoration; Sinatra only lived in the house from 1947 – 1957, which left many new residents to muss its essence. By 1997, it was being sold as a tear down.  Scroll down 3/4 on this link to learn more.  Now it’s available to any of us with lots of disposable cash to live out Frank & Ava fantasies for a weekend, a wonderful gift suggestion to add to your Christmas wish list!


Mid-Century Fetish: The Best Of Everything


The Best of Everything is a rich chocolate sundae of Hollywood melodrama and mid-century modern design, with Miss Joan Crawford as the cherry on top.

Filmed and released in 1959, the movie is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe.  The book is a really great read because it’s far more than a soap tale of 3 girls coming to New York City to find love and good fortune; it is a realistic snapshot of how post-WW2 cultural and corporate standards demanded the creation of Women’s Liberation.

The dramatic and/or tragic stories of the girls’ journeys through sex and career were obvious bait for Hollywood, who added spoonfuls of glamor sugar to make the medicine go down, and this lesson was clearly understood and aped by both Cosmopolitan magazine and, later, Mad Men. I’d make a bet that Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.


Along with Hope Lange, Barbara Lamont and Suzy Parker (above center), the Lever House should have been billed as a co-star, because it actually appears on screen as often as Joan Crawford.  It appears so much because it’s caddy corner on Park Avenue to the building where our heroines work…


… the Seagram Building.  So within the first 15 minutes of the film, you know you’re in for a rich and gooey mid-century modern treat.


The main character, Caroline Bender, comes to her first day of work as a typist and secretary at Fabian Publishing Company.   She arrives early to absorb the place, and the camera pans over this Mondrian-like office set.  The film’s art direction is primarily by Lyle R. Wheeler, who had already worked similar magic on films like The Long Hot Summer, Peyton Place, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Bus Stop.  For the Fabian Publishing set, he used door colors to signify which level each inhabitant occupied on the corporate totem pole and adhered to tight grids in the typing pool to symbolize the rigid class distinctions between executives and the female typing pool.  If – without seeing the move – this set looks familiar to you, it may indicate that you…


…watch Mad Men. During the first few episodes of the first season, I was vaguely disappoint in how refined the sets were, until I realized that I was instinctively comparing their sets to The Best of EverythingThe people responsible for the Mad Men sets have essentially created the accurate, real-world version of of Hollywood’s glossy interpretation of late 50s/early 60s corporate world.


Caroline Bender  (above) has ambitions to become an editor but first assigned secretary duties to editor Miss Amanda Farrow (Miss Crawford, below right).


The Mad Men character Peggy Olson is a perfect compilation of these two characters.  Peggy “before” is Caroline, all freshly scrubbed from a small town looking to make it in the Big City, and her quick learning curve and natural talent moves her quickly up the ladder.  If you’d like a sneak peak at Peggy “after,” see this movie and keep an eye on the Amanda character.  And look at those chairs!


This is the office of Fabian editor-in-chief Fred Shalimar, and dig the wall of built-in book shelves holding the paperbacks he’s overseen.  As in Mad Men, actual work takes a backseat to drinking, smoking and carousing, so the office needs to be comfy and stylish.


Hollywood depicted the bustling employee cafeteria inside the Seagram building as a mod fantasy of vivid aqua, yellow and purple, which stood in stark contrast to the marble and glass lobby that couldn’t be glossed into submission.


When the action leaves the office, we get a wide sample of the different aspects of mid-century modern residential design.  Above is the work-a-day kitchen in Amanda Farrow’s apartment, and below is the penthouse of rich playboy Dexter Key (played by Robert Evans) who will do terrible things to one of our heroines.



Eventually, Caroline becomes second-in-command at Fabian and gets this spacious new office.  It  does a better job of expressing the character’s reactions to her rapid rise than the actress does, which pretty much sums up the movie.  As often happens, Hollywood sucks the soul out of a book for the sake of selling tickets.  In the case of The Best of Everything, the sets and the costumes are the reason I watch this movie so often, and the reason I get an extra kick out of Mad Men.

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